Peace: A Deceptive, Dictatorial Word

After a long absence, “peace” is back in the headlines, due in large measure to this week’s visit to Israel by French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who came to try to promote a new French initiative that somehow, by as yet unspecified means, would resuscitate the moribund “peace process.”

Perversely planned to take place without either Israel or the Palestinians, the principal protagonists, the conference has now fortuitously been delayed to accommodate the schedule of U.S. Secretary of State Kerry, who apparently had better things to do than take part in yet another doomed charade to forge “peace” in the Middle East.

However, despite its ill-conceived rationale and dauntingly dim prospects, the planned summit can and should serve one constructive purpose: to focus attention not only on what the quest for the elusive condition of “peace” really entails, but on the even more fundamental question of what is actually meant, and what can realistically be expected, when we talk of “peace” as a desired goal, particularly in the context of the Middle East and particularly from an Israeli perspective.

Indeed, the need for such clarification becomes even more vital and pressing because of recent reports of possible Egyptian involvement in attempts to initiate “peace” negotiations with Arab regimes teetering on the brink of extinction and involving a perilous Israeli withdrawal to indefensible borders. All this in exchange for grudging recognition as a non-Jewish state by a partially no longer existent, partially disintegrating, Arab world.

A dictatorial word

It takes little reflection to discover that, in fact, “peace” is a word that is both dictatorial and deceptive.

It is dictatorial because it brooks no opposition. Just as no one can openly pronounce opposition to a dictator without risking severe repercussions, so too no one can be openly branded as opposing peace without suffering grave consequences to personal and professional stature.

Life can be harsh for anyone with the temerity to challenge the tyrannical dictates of the politically correct liberal perspectives. As British columnist Melanie Phillips remarked several years ago in an interview on Israel’s Channel 1: “Believe me, it [failing to abide by political correctness] has a very chilling effect on people, because you can lose your professional livelihood, your chances of promotion, you lose your friends.”

In a surprisingly candid admission, The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof wrote that “universities are the bedrock of progressive values, but the one kind of diversity that universities disregard is ideological. … We’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.”

This peer-imposed doctrinaire uniformity has had a debilitating impact on the quality of intellectual discourse in general, and on the question of “peace” in the Middle East in particular.

A New York Times opinion piece by Arthur C. Brooks cautioned: “Excessive homogeneity can lead to stagnation and poor problem solving.” Citing studies that found a “shocking level of political groupthink in academia, he warned that “expecting trustworthy results on politically charged topics from an ideologically incestuous community [is] downright delusional.”

A deceptive word

The considerable potential for defective analysis in the intellectual discourse on such a politically charged topic as “peace” also accounts for another detrimental attribute of the word.

Not only is it rigidly dictatorial, but, perhaps even more significantly, “peace” is a grossly deceptive word. It can be, and indeed is, used to denote two disparate even antithetical political situations. On the one hand, “peace” can be used to describe a state of mutual harmony between parties, but on the other hand it can just as aptly be used to characterize an absence of violence maintained by deterrence.

In the first meaning, “peace” entails a situation in which the parties eschew violence because they share a mutual perception of a common interest in preserving a tranquil status quo. In the second meaning, “peace” entails a situation in which violence is avoided only by the threat of incurring exorbitant costs.

The significance of this goes far beyond semantics. On the contrary. If it is not clearly understood, it is likely to precipitate calamitous consequences.

The perilous pitfalls of ‘peace’

It is crucial for practical policy prescriptions not to blur the sharp substantive differences between these two political realities. Each requires different policies both to achieve and, even more importantly, to sustain them.

The misguided pursuit of one kind of peace may well render the achievement — and certainly the preservation — of the other kind of peace impossible.

Countries with the mutual harmony variety of “peace” typically have relationships characterized by openness and the free movement of people and goods across borders. As in the relationship between Canada and the U.S., there is little or no effort needed to prevent hostile actions by one state against the other. Differences that arise are not only settled without violence, but the very idea of using force against each other is virtually inconceivable.

By contrast, in the second, deterrence-based variety of peace, such as those between the U.S. and USSR during the Cold War or between Iran and Iraq up to the 1980s, the protagonists feel compelled to invest huge efforts in deterrence to maintain the absence of war.

Indeed, whenever the deterrent capacity of one state is perceived to wane, the danger of war becomes very real, as was seen in the Iraqi offensive against an apparently weakened and disorderly Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

In this type of “peace,” there is no harmonious interaction between the peoples of the states. Movements across borders are usually highly restricted and regulated, and often prohibited.

It is not surprising to find that peace of the “mutual harmony” variety prevails almost exclusively between democracies, since its characteristic openness runs counter to the nature of dictatorial regimes.

The perils of pursuing one type of peace (mutual harmony) when only the other type (deterrence) is feasible were summed up over two decades ago by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his acclaimed book “A Place Among the Nations: Israel and the World.” In it, he calls for making a clear distinction between the “peace of democracies” and the “peace of deterrence.”

“As long as you are faced with a dictatorial adversary, you must maintain sufficient strength to deter him from going to war. By doing so, you can at least obtain the peace of deterrence. But if you let down your defenses … you invite war, not peace,” he wrote.

Much earlier, in 1936, Winston Churchill underscored the dangers: “The French Army is the strongest in Europe. But no one is afraid of France. Everyone knows that France wants to be let alone, and that with her it is only a case of self-preservation. … They are a liberal nation with free parliamentary institutions. Germany, on the other hand, under its Nazi regime … [in which] two or three men have the whole of that mighty country in their grip [and] there is no public opinion except what is manufactured by those new and terrible engines — broadcasting and a controlled press fills unmistakably that part [of] … the would-be dominator or potential aggressor.”

Compromise counterproductive

To grasp the potential for disaster when a policy designed to attain a harmonious outcome is pursued in a political context in which none is possible, it is first necessary to recognize that, in principle, there are two archetypal configurations. In one, a policy of compromise and concession may well be appropriate; in the other, such a policy will be devastatingly inappropriate.

In the first configuration, an adversary interprets concessions as conciliatory, and feels obliged to respond with a counter-concession. Thus, by a series of concessions and counter-concessions, the process converges toward some amicably harmonious resolution of conflict.

However, in the second configuration, the adversary sees any concession as a sign of vulnerability and weakness, made under duress. Accordingly, such initiatives do not elicit any reciprocal gesture, only demands for further concessions.

But further concessions still do not prompt reciprocal moves toward a peaceable resolution. This process ill necessarily culminate either in total capitulation or in large-scale violence, either because one side finally realizes that its adversary is acting in bad faith and can only be restrained by force, or because the other side realizes it has extracted all the concessions possible by non-coercive means, and will only win further gains by force.

In such a scenario, compromise is counterproductive and concessions will compound casualties.

Whetting, not satiating, Arab appetites

Of course, little effort is required to see that the conditions confronting Israel today resemble the latter situation far more than the former. No matter how many far-reaching compromises and gut-wrenching concessions Israel has made, they have never been enough to elicit any commensurate counter-concessions from the Arabs. Indeed, rather than satiate the Arab appetite, they have merely whetted it, with each Israeli gesture only leading to further demands for more “gestures.”

If in any “peace” negotiations such compromises undermine Israeli deterrence by increasing its perceived vulnerability, they will make war, not peace, more imminent.

Indeed, it was none other than Shimon Peres, in recent years one of the most avid advocates of the land-for-peace doctrine (or dogma), who, in his book “Tomorrow is Now,” warned vigorously of the perils of the policy he later embraced.

After detailing how surrendering the Sudetenland made Czechoslovakia vulnerable to attack, Peres writes of the concessions Israel is being pressured to make today to attain “peace” : “Without a border which affords security, a country is doomed to destruction in war. … It is of course doubtful whether territorial expanse can provide absolute deterrence. However, the lack of minimal territorial expanse places a country in a position of an absolute lack of deterrence. This in itself constitutes almost compulsive temptation to attack Israel from all directions.”

e also warns: “The major issue is not [attaining] an agreement, but ensuring the actual implementation of the agreement in practice. The number of agreements which the Arabs have violated is no less than number which they have kept.” Since then, of course, their record has hardly improved.

Will Netanyahu 2016 heed Netanyahu 1993?

In 1996, shortly after Netanyahu was elected prime minister for the first time, Ari Shavit of Haaretz interviewed him on positions he had articulated in “A Place Among the Nations.”Shavit: “In your book, you make a distinction between … a harmonious kind of peace that can exist only between democratic countries, and peace through deterrence, which could also be maintained in the Middle East as it currently is. Do you think we need to lower our expectations and adopt a much more modest concept of peace?”

Netanyahu: “One of our problems is that we tend to nurse unrealistic expectations. … When people detach themselves from reality, floating around in the clouds and losing contact with the ground, they will eventually crash on the rocky realities of the true Middle East.”

Let us all hope that Netanyahu of today will heed the advice of Netanyahu of then. It is the only way Israel will be able to avoid the ruinous ravages of the deceptive and dictatorial word “peace.”

(Originally published on Israel Hayom)